Cory Branan’s new album is wryly titled The No-Hit Wonder, but despite the self-inflicted jab, the Memphis-bred roots-rocker is at the crest of the new wave of Americana.
After 15 years of “living like a ping-pong ball,” Branan actually may have made more friends than money. Yet on the road, both are legal tender. With the record’s title track, he pays tribute to those unsung heroes that keep chasing the rock ‘n’ roll dream.
“The song is for the people that know there’s probably not going to be fame and fortune,” he told CMT Edge, “but that they may be able to carve a living out of doing it the hard, long way.”
For The No-Hit Wonder, Branan mixes his witty, observational songwriting with boozy heartland rock, honky-tonk and blues. After enlisting Jason Isbell and under-the-radar friends like Tim Easton, Austin Lucas, Caitlin Rose and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge for guest appearances, he may soon have to ditch his title.
Or, maybe not.
Like he sings in the title track’s chorus, “It is what it is.”
CMT Edge: In the world that you and your friends live in, is being a “no-hit wonder” kind of the running joke?
Branan: I don’t know if anybody’s been morbid enough to say it, but yeah. The idea came from seeing a lot of my friends that are more talented than me — definitely more talented than most things you hear on the radio — that are out there humping it with not a lot to show for it. Most of the good music I hear, I hear it up from the underground. And everybody’s out there fighting over the same dollar because there’s not a lot of revenue in the mailbox [from songwriting]. So it’s definitely a working man’s game now, and everybody’s gotta go out there.
What was the actual catalyst for writing the song?
I think I wrote that right after one of the last Folk Alliances I went to. You go in this hotel and on the top three floors, it’s all acoustic music and every room has someone else playing in it. So I’ve made a lot of friends like that who play a lot of house concerts and things. And I’ve seen a lot of people that sort of stick to their guns just kind of get passed over.
Why do you think you keep going out there and being a no-hit wonder?
I don’t know why any of us do it, any of the lifers. We have problems. Our mothers held us too much or didn’t hold us enough. Who knows? That’s what I tell anybody when they’re starting out fresh and they’re asking about the best advice. I’m like, “If you have any other skills or any other thing you love in life, do that. If you don’t have this compulsion that makes you do this, don’t do it. Do it as a hobby.”
Some of my favorite songs on the album were about romantic longing, but they felt less wide-eyed than some of your past work. Do you think your songwriting has made a turn?
Yeah, I think it’s a more mature record. There’s still some snarky shit here and there, but I would hope there is more scale and perspective. As you get older, you realize, “This experience didn’t kill me.” And then you’re kind of upset. You’re like, “Some of these things should kill you. You shouldn’t live through some things.” And then you realize that it’s going to be fine. … It makes for good verses, but not necessarily good choruses. Put the medicine in the verse.
So then what goes into the chorus?
Either the trapdoor or the way out or a little something to hang on to.
You’re married now with two kids. Is that what’s bringing this out?
A lot of that. There’s just gotta be a reason after a while when you’re doing this, living like this and it gets tight. I feel a little more stable by being involved in life and not just wandering here and there — and since setting down roots and having responsibilities that are terrifying and very rewarding. … The jokes are fine, but I can’t do a whole song on that. There needs to be a blade and a handle. It can’t be all yuks.
In terms of the sound on the record, I heard a lot of doghouse bass and honky-tonk stuff. Is that kind of new for you?
Yeah, I’ve kind of avoided it in the past, being from Memphis. That’s the thing about Memphians: they want to do anything but what they’re good at. That’s what Jim Dickinson used to say. Country blues and sort of country stuff, any of the rockabilly stuff, I steered away from it in Nashville. Especially the blues, which I touch on a little bit in this record. Eventually I’ll lean toward that more, but it’s almost more scripture to me. I love it so much that I just keep my honky ass away from it.
Do you think people go back to their original love as they grow older?
Maybe so. I just know with this record, the songs seemed to present themselves. Songs like “Daddy Was a Skywriter” and “All the Rivers in Colorado,” they seemed very straight up the middle to me. Of course, throw an accordion on there and all of a sudden it’s got a Zydeco flavor, but it’s more of a roots record really.
My father died a few years ago now, and there’s a song on there that’s sort of about him. I grew up riding around in his ugly banana-yellow truck listening to Blackwood Brothers and gospel quartets and country music. Just a lot more roots on this one. I think it’s straight up the middle. But then, I know I have a very broad definition of how wide the road is.